Ethics Alarms and ProEthics Presents “The Untrustworthy 20”: Making Ethics the Priority in Election 2010

The key word, in ethics, in government, in all relationships that matter, is trust. Trust is the connective tissue that holds societies together: it can be strengthened by demonstrations of ethical values like integrity, loyalty, honesty, civility, responsibility, competence, and courage, and weakened by proof of unethical traits like fecklessness, dishonesty, lack of independent judgment, selfishness, lack of diligence, greed and cowardice. For decades, the American public’s trust in its elected representatives and governmental institutions—and other critical institutions like the news media and the legal system—has been in steep decline. This is not because of some inexplicable public fad or the poisoning of public perceptions by an unholy alliance of the pop culture and Fox news. The decline in trust has occurred because a significant proportion of America’s elected leaders have not been trustworthy, and the reason this has been true is that American voters have thus far refused to make proof of ethical values their main priority in electing them. Because politicians know this, they feel empowered to engage in corruption, self-enrichment and deception in the confidence that partisan supporters will vote for them anyway, as long as they mouth the same policy positions and deliver their quota of pork, earmarks, and government contracts.

This, of course, does not benefit of  country in the long run, but weakens it. It also creates an increasingly arrogant and power-obsessed political class to which ethical values are like Halloween costumes, donned at regular intervals to disguise who they really are. The core principles of the democratic process do not matter to many of these people, and they don’t see why they should matter: witness House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s refusal to debate her opponent because she knows she can win easily without giving her constituents a fair chance to compare the competing candidates. For most voters, over all, this approach still works, at least at the polls, so obviously untrustworthy officials continue to be elected, and by their conduct continue to destroy public trust.

I was discussing this issue at recent seminar in regard to the candidacy of Richard Blumenthal, the Connecticut Attorney General who is running for the state’s U.S. Senate seat. Blumenthal, to be blunt, is a proven liar and fraud on a grand scale. He intentionally misled the public for years about his military record, and assumed the false mantle of a combat veteran. When his deception was uncovered, he refused to be accountable, absurdly casting the repeated lies about his own past as mere slips of the tongue. Yet a Connecticut citizen at my table proclaimed that he “didn’t care;” that Blumenthal’s policies were what mattered, not his ethics. This is an astoundingly illogical mindset, but a common one. Power tends to tempt and corrupt individuals who have scruples and integrity: what is it likely to produce with an elected official that has neither integrity nor scruples to begin with? If we elect representatives who are untrustworthy, we are likely to be betrayed sooner or later, one way or the other. Worse, we send the message to future candidates, both in and out of office, that integrity and honesty don’t matter to voters, like my Connecticut friend. We thus get more untrustworthy candidates, more untrustworthy representatives, and constantly declining public trust in government on all levels.

Public trust cannot keep declining indefinitely, you know. Eventually, a government that cannot be trusted will collapse.

Just as addressing America’s fiscal crisis will take hard measures and sacrifice, addressing its equally dangerous crisis in trust requires sacrifice too. It will require voters to establish the principle that being “effective,” experienced or having the “right” policy positions will not be enough to justify electing or re-electing individuals who are demonstrably trustworthy. Voters must establish  untrustworthiness as absolutely disqualifying a candidate for election to public office. Any ethical, honest candidate with integrity must be seen as per se preferable to a corrupt, dishonest or unethical candidate, regardless of past achievements or policy views.

To this end, Ethics Alarms presents its list of the least trustworthy candidates for national office in the upcoming election. For reasons of space and convenience, it is limited to twenty members, which is obviously and sadly far too few: in the more than 500 races for Congress, the U.S. Senate and governorships nation-wide, the number of untrustworthy candidates undoubtedly numbers in the hundreds. This list is illustrative, not inclusive, but it is my assessment of the worst of the worst.

What makes a candidate so untrustworthy that he or she deserves to be rejected no matter who the opposition may be? This is what I like to call the “Lawn Chair Principle,” when electing a lawn chair is preferable to electing the human alternative. Let’s begin with what doesn’t justify determining that a candidate is necessarily untrustworthy: Continue reading

Ethics Dunces: Christine O’Donnell Voters

It’s not a smear or a lie, and it certainly isn’t trivial. The upset winner of Delaware’s Republican Senate primary, Tea Party darling Christine O’Donnell, has a well-established pattern of irresponsible financial conduct, including living off of her campaign funds, a violation of Federal election law. She has not made a bona fide effort to support herself other than running for office, and she has a record of misleading and dishonest statements that show a reckless disrespect for candor and the truth.

In short, she is not trustworthy, and the fact that O’Donnell has her Tea Party rhetoric down pat doesn’t change the fact that it is just plain stupid to trust someone who is dishonest in her public statements and fiscally irresponsible in her private life to bring honor, integrity and fiscal restraint to Congress. Continue reading

Defining Fiscal Irresponsibility Down and the $578M School

The shocking thing about the new $578 million school complex recently unveiled in Los Angeles, other than its obscene price tag, is that it was a one-day news story, and a minor one at that. There are no demonstrations; Fox News isn’t screaming about it. One education blog blandly asked, “Some view the school and its deluxe amenities as a showpiece for the community, while others view it as a waste of taxpayer money. What do you think?”

“What do you think???” WHAT DO YOU THINK???

The Robert F. Kennedy Community School is a showpiece for the community, all right: it shows that the community is run by irresponsible, incompetent officials, and that the community’s taxpayers are the human equivalent of sheep. Continue reading

The Ethics Of Ending Public Broadcasting

The seeming inability of elected officials and politicians to deal with basic decisions involving responsibility, prudence, accountability and honesty is coming into sharp focus as yet another debate over taxpayer-funded public broadcasting on PBS and NPR gets underway.

Colorado Congressman Doug Lamborn has introduced legislation that would cut all federal funding, an estimated annual $420 million, for public radio and television as part of the necessary effort to close the nation’s more than $13 trillion debt. As one of thousands of measures that will have to be taken to stave of fiscal catastrophe in the future, the move is truly a no-brainer, an example of the standard budget-balancing strategy of eliminating the most non-essential expenses, no matter how nice it may have been to have them when resources were more plentiful. In a rational, ethical environment where politicians didn’t regard their interest group contributors as more important than the welfare of the nation as a whole, Lamborn’s proposal wouldn’t be considered controversial. The rational response from all would be, “Well, of course! That’s $420 million that can be better used.”

But no. Continue reading

Abuse of Power in the Schools, Part 1: Pimping the Kids

Blogger-mom Laura Wellington is making the talk show rounds after a post last month on her blog aroused interest and commentary from various newspapers. In the post, she indignantly described a fundraising drive by her child’s school that understandably raised her ire:

“…the letter [my daughter] handed me stated my daughter was to accomplish chores around the house with the goal of being paid by me for those chores the sum of $20.  She would then have to hand the full $20 over to the school to make up for the shortfall in their overall budget which, ultimately, disallowed the kids to go on yet another class trip.  Participation was mandatory according to what my daughter told me and the letter seemingly conveyed (however, on a later phone call, my daughter’s teacher altered the word “mandatory” to be “suggested” despite all evidence to the contrary)…”

Wellington’s complaint is that schools need to exercise fiscal responsibility, and she is joining a rising chorus of protest among parents across the country who feel that their tax dollars should not have to be supplemented with constant arm-twisting from schools urging them  to buy and sell over-priced cookies or provide additional contributions. This is a fiscal policy issue; the ethical issue should be less controversial. When did schools get the authority to dictate what children do outside school? How do they justify requiring unpaid labor for the school’s benefit? Continue reading

The 4th, the Crisis, and the Duty to Celebrate

The Fourth of July is less than 60 days away, and communities are looking hard at their budgets. The signs are ominous. This doesn’t seem like the right time to be throwing big parties.

This week, the Alexandria Chapter of the American Red Cross announced that it was canceling the Waterfront Festival, a summer community celebration with fireworks that it had sponsored since 1981. “We decided that responding to a fire in the middle of the night was a much better use of our resources,” said a local Red Cross’s executive director. Indeed. The total costs of the event totaled close to a quarter-million dollars. In times of financial stress, and even in better times, a service organization using resources and volunteer time to throw a community party of such magnitude seems irresponsible.

So what are we going to do about the 4th of July? Continue reading

How We Will Know When the GOP Can Be Trusted

The Democrats swept into power in the wake of an unpopular war,  economic collapse, and perhaps most of all, indisputable proof that too many Republican lawmakers were venal, corrupt, arrogant, and unworthy of power. It has taken only a year from the promises of ethical reform made by Speaker Pelosi and President Obama to seem insincere, and Republican’s believe that this time public distrust will work to their favor, returning them to the power they abused. They may be right. Still, the public is not stupid. If Republicans intend to campaign as the party of fiscal responsibility and honest government, they must demonstrate that the commitment is more than a masquerade. Time and credibility, however, are in short supply. Continue reading

Ethics Dunce: Sally Herigstad

Sally Herigstad, the MSN website tells us, is a certified public accountant and author of the book,  Help! I Can’t Pay My Bills. She is a personal-finance writer, it says, who has been contributing to Microsoft and MSN Money since 1998.

And, based on her article, “6 Reasons Not to Save for Kids’ College,” she is also a fully-qualified Ethics Dunce.

It is fine to explain the various inefficiencies of putting aside funds for your children’s education, but Herigstad’s argument boils down to selfishness, and thus serves as an incentive for parents to abdicate the ethical duties of parenthood because an expert has decreed that it’s the reasonable thing to do. Continue reading